The anatomy of a turnaround

John Shelby was lost.

The freshman — half naïve, half nervous — was on his way to the UK baseball offices to meet his new coach, John Cohen.

Even though he was new to the campus, he thought he was going in the right direction.

He arrived at the baseball offices. He found Cohen. He even shook his hand. But he was still going in the wrong direction.

“Hey man, I’d really appreciate it if you just turned your hat around,” Cohen said to Shelby. “That’s something that’s going to be important to us.”

Shelby complied.

“The bill of your cap represents the direction in life you’re going,” Shelby recalls Cohen saying. “You can either go forward or backward.”

From that point on, Shelby wore his hat forward. And from that point on, the UK baseball program only went forward.

The turnaround was beginning.

Just what he wanted

The Cats were on the road at Georgia at the end of Cohen’s first season in 2004. A Bulldog fan wasn’t impressed with one of UK’s many walk-on pitchers, and he let him know it.

“ ‘That’s the worst arm action I’ve ever seen. That’s the worst delivery I’ve ever seen from a college pitcher,’ ” Cohen remembers the fan saying. “And (UK’s pitching coach) Gary Henderson leans over to me and says, ‘That’s just because he hasn’t seen the rest of our staff yet.’ ”

That was part of the problem. There wasn’t much else to see.

At one point in his first season, the Cats were down to seven pitchers, starting rotation and bullpen combined. Florida, where Cohen had just spent two years as an assistant, had 21 pitchers.

During his time in Gainesville, the Gators played in back-to-back NCAA regionals.

UK, on the other hand, had made only five NCAA Tournament appearances in the history of the program and was coming off a 24-32 season. The Cats hadn’t even made it to the Southeastern Conference Tournament since 2000.

Cohen knew all that. In fact, he was excited by it.

“I wanted to be at a place that so many things had never been done before,” Cohen said. “I wanted the opportunity.”

But the program was in even worse shape than he thought.

At Florida, Cohen left behind one of the top five recruiting classes in the country. The recruiting class he inherited at UK had just two players, including Shelby. The class didn’t have a single pitcher.

Because former coach Keith Madison had announced his retirement early in the year, the team couldn’t go out and recruit any players. And with school starting in a few weeks, there was hardly any time for Cohen to find players who could compete at the SEC level.

Still, Cohen had big aspirations. His goal — no matter how impossible it seemed — was to elevate UK from perennial conference doormat to one of nation’s best baseball programs.

But the turnaround wasn’t going to come quickly.

“We started from scratch”

By the time of the final series of Cohen’s first season, the Cats were down to 22 players. They started with

around 40.

Vanderbilt swept that series, outscoring UK 28-12. For the weekend, the Commodores stole nine bases, including six in one game. They were only caught stealing once.

“We literally don’t have the skill level on the mound to control the running game, or the brain potential to control the running game and we don’t have a catcher to control the running game,” Cohen said. “Literally, Vanderbilt is running at will.”

But something positive came out of that series: The season was over. UK finished 24-30 and 7-23 in the conference. It was the Cats’ fourth straight last-place finish in the Eastern division.

Cohen knew the program needed a complete overhaul.

“After our first year, we started from scratch in terms of our personnel,” Cohen said.

Some players left the team during the season. Others weren’t brought back because they were treating baseball as a hobby.

When Cohen was a player, he certainly didn’t treat baseball as a hobby. Even today, he is considered one of the best players in Mississippi State baseball history. He is in the top 10 in hits in a single season and he is sixth on the all-time doubles list. In 1990, Cohen led the Bulldogs in games played on their way to the College World Series.

But there was one problem that held Cohen back — himself. He was obsessed with the game. And he never thought he was good enough.

One of his biggest problems was changing his swing to imitate baseball’s best players. He loved to mimic Rafael Palmeiro, Will Clark and Barry Bonds. He said he changed his swing every five minutes.

If Cohen made an error or struck out, he was furious at himself until he got another chance.

“My personality was much better suited to be a football or basketball player,” Cohen said. “I don’t think I’ll ever coach anybody that could get as mad as I could as a player.”

Ultimately, it helped end his playing career. He spent two years in the Minnesota Twins organization before going to the University of Missouri to be an assistant coach. He stopped playing partly because he wasn’t good enough, and partly because he was tired of not being good enough.

Cohen has found a way to channel his emotions as a coach. He’s still intense — a player gave him a clipboard for Christmas a few years ago because he had broken so many, and he has idolized Bear Bryant’s coaching techniques since he was a kid growing up in Tuscaloosa, Ala. — but he said he can focus for longer periods of time than he used to.

He got his first head coaching job at tiny Northwestern State in Natchitoches, La., in 1998.

He had similar hurdles to overcome there. The baseball program had no recruiting budget, but he still was expected to go out and beat Louisiana State.

And his team did. Twice.

If Northwestern State — where Cohen had to go door-to-door to raise money for equipment and travel expenses — could compete with one of the best teams in the country, then surely UK could overcome being an also-ran team in the SEC.

His first recruiting class had the players he wanted. The only problem was, those freshmen had to play right away. The results weren’t much different — the Cats still only won seven conference games. But the team was much more competitive.

The Cats lost eight conference games by two runs or less. Seven times in SEC play, the opponent won in their final at bat.

One of those close games was a 6-5 loss to LSU, which came back from an early deficit behind a three-run home run in the sixth inning.

Michael Bertram was at first base, John Shelby at second base that game. After the three-run blast, the two were trying to talk to each other about how UK was going to respond to the homer.

But they couldn’t hear each other speak. Even just a few feet away, screaming couldn’t overcome the crowd noise. They had to get right up in each other’s ear.

After the game, Cohen was talking to Bertram about the noise and atmosphere inside the stadium after the home run.

“That’s what Kentucky’s going to be like someday,” Cohen said. “I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but that’s what Kentucky’s going to be.”

That day would come sooner than expected.

The turnaround was in motion.

Off-the-field changes

In many ways, the turnaround started off the field. Cohen wanted his players to look and act a certain way, and he wanted them to be standout members of the Lexington community.

No backward hats. No earrings. No facial hair.

He wanted his players to learn how to shake people’s hands. And to look people in the eye during conversation. In public, he wanted “yes ma’am” and “no sir”. And he had no-tolerance for his players drinking alcohol.

The players responded. His teams have never had a problem with attending classes or making grades. In fall 2007, 21 players had grade-point averages of 3.0 or higher, and five had a 4.0. The team has had less than five alcohol incidents since he’s been here.

Cohen also began improving the baseball facilities almost immediately. He started small, with the removal of weeds around part of the fence. Then an upgrade was made to the clubhouse, giving players a lounge with a big-screen TV, and ping-pong and pool tables.

By the 2006 season, the Cats had a new indoor hitting facility, something that was critical not only for the current players, but for recruits. And additional parking was added just past the right field wall.

The next year, a new scoreboard with a jumbo screen was built in left field, as was a new deck in right field that can hold 100 to 150 people.

He also wanted to increase exposure of the team. In his first year, the Cats had as few as 75 fans at games. For the season, the Cats averaged 387 fans a game, by far the lowest in the SEC.

The athletic department paid for billboards and got the games broadcast on radio and TV.

The players visit elementary schools and Little League ballparks at least once a week during the season. Cohen has been all over the country — San Diego, Las Vegas, Chicago — speaking at coaching clinics.

And in February 2006, the team made its most significant move in getting the message out.

Cohen sent his players out in groups of four to go door-to-door around Lexington selling season tickets. There was an inch of snow on the ground.

The team sold more than 100 season tickets that February day, and in response, nearly 1,000 fans showed up for the 2006 season opener against Evansville. Only 362 fans were at the final home game of the 2005 season.

The turnaround was in high gear.

Year three: A charm

UK needed a lot of luck going into the third year of the turnaround.

Cohen was at a game watching his prize recruit, Ryan Strieby. The 6-foot-6 sophomore at Edmonds Community College was his typical self that day, spraying the ball all over the field. He was so good, Cohen made a call to Henderson during the middle of the game to talk about the performance.

He asked Henderson who else UK was recruiting to play first base. Henderson was confused; why, he asked Cohen, did he want to know who else the Cats were targeting if he was so impressed with Strieby.

“Because there’s no way this guy is going to show up on campus,” Cohen said.

Strieby did show up in Lexington, turning down the Detroit Tigers in the process. And he was exactly what UK needed: a centerpiece on offense.

The Cats started the season 17-3, and they ran through the SEC. UK won two of three against LSU, Tennessee, Florida and Vanderbilt. In back-to-back weekends, the Cats swept the two Mississippi schools.

The last win against Mississippi State moved UK all the way to No. 4 in the national rankings. A win against Georgia the next week gave the Cats their first SEC championship in the history of the program.

That’s a far cry from Cohen’s first UK team, which had a tough time receiving signals from coaches because runners were too busy chatting with the opposing first basemen.

“When we took over the program, it might have been at an all-time low,” Cohen said. “In terms of talent level, in terms of attendance, in terms of people who care, in terms of all those things.”

The SEC title led to another first for the team: the chance to host an NCAA regional. UK lost to Ball State in its first game of the regional and couldn’t overcome the early loss. The Cats bounced back to win two straight games, but lost to the College of Charleston in the final round.

The best season in UK history ended short of the ultimate goal, the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

“I’m still saying that was the best year of my life,” Shelby said. “I don’t think it could be beaten even if I make it to the World Series in pro baseball.”

Still, a total turnaround seemed inevitable.

“It kind of foreshadowed everything”

The crowd that made communicating impossible for the Cats in Baton Rouge the year before was in Lexington for the UK regional. This time, most of the fans wore blue and white.

Bertram said he remembered when 100 fans came to watch the Cats play a top-five team. In UK’s first game of the regional, 3,529 fans packed the stands, a school record until the Cats broke it with 4,009 fans earlier this year against Louisville.

The players and the fans weren’t happy when the Cats failed to advance in the regional. Nor was anyone happy when UK went 13-16-1 in the conference the following season and failed to make the SEC and NCAA tournaments. (To be sure, several members from the SEC championship team were gone).

But that more than anything should signify UK’s staying power: The Cats weren’t just satisfied with the one SEC title appearance, one chance to host an NCAA regional.

“It whets your appetite for what’s still out there,” said athletic director Mitch Barnhart, whom Cohen gives much of the credit to, along with Henderson, assistant coach Brad Bohannon and the rest of the baseball and UK athletics staffs.

And they want to keep it going.

UK is “very close to making some huge inroads,” Cohen said, on either an expansion of the current stadium, or the more likely option of constructing a new stadium near the soccer and softball fields.

If UK doesn’t, Cohen has a clause in his contract that would allow him to opt out by July 1, 2009 if he feels the school hasn’t made significant progress in upgrading the stadium.

The Cats have also lined up a recruiting class for next year that — if it comes to campus even mostly intact — could be one of the country’s top incoming groups.

If someone would have asked Shelby if all this was possible four years ago when Cohen asked him to turn his hat around, he would have said yes.

“It kind of foreshadowed everything you want to be preparing for in your future. That’s what I took from it,” Shelby said. “You don’t want to go backward, you want to go forward.”

The program is definitely going forward. This year’s team is 33-11 (11-10 SEC), and they have climbed to as high as No. 2 in the national rankings.

That’s a good start, and Cohen hasn’t been shy about where he wants this team to finish: Omaha.

“That’s where we want to be,” Cohen said. “I’m not afraid to say it. It’s not some kind of crazy, ludicrous plan. It can happen.”

If it does, the turnaround will be complete.